My missions in "371"
You know, it's funny. . . you look back and you only remember the crazy things. Everything else just gets blacked out. There's always that moment, though, when you realize " someone is trying to kill me!"
It's a strange feeling. We were just kids; maybe 18 to 21 years old. I've always heard people say: " If you're not afraid in combat, you're crazy!" I wasn't afraid in combat. My time was when I saw my name on the bulletin board and I knew I was going to fly a mission the next day. It's hard to say why, but that's the way it was.
We flew our first mission on the morning of April 8, and there was flak on the way to the target. I was sitting on some ammo cans, watching the white puffs of 88mm flak coming up. The first burst came away out in front of us and the next one was behind us. I said to myself: "Wow, this is going to be easy. These guys aren't very good. " Well, little did I know, they had just bracketed us. They had just zeroed in on our altitude and direction. All hell broke loose below us and I never sat down on a mission again.
The next day came in a hurry, and before dawn, they gave us a briefing for our second mission: Tutow. We were told to fly up over the North Sea, towards Denmark and Kiel. Hours later, as I looked out my left waist window, I could see all the way to Sweden.
I was a gunner and armorer. When you take off over England, the safety keys are in the bombs. Those bombs have to be armed when you fly over the Channel. So, you go along the catwalk and pull out the keys; each one with a little tag on it. You stick those in your pocket, and when you go back, you turn them in.
We were supposed to head inland, like we were going to bomb Berlin . . . it was a mission to draw fighters up, so that our invasion forces wouldn't have to face a strong Luftwaffe. The idea was to drop our bombs and head on back; but when we got over Germany, Oh boy!!! There was anti-aircraft fire everywhere. You could look down and see it coming up at you.
As we continued into Germany, there were waves of fighters and more flak to greet us. All of a sudden, we started seeing airplanes going down in every direction; just peeling off and breaking up. That's when it all comes home to you! They're really getting shot down! We were green.
The clouds were all around us. When you looked down, you'd only catch a flash of the landscape below. As I checked around the sky, the rest of the squadron had vanished. There weren't many of us left up there and I felt like we were a long way from home.
It so happens that the group decided there was too much cloud cover. The lead ship sent out a radio message, calling of the show, so most of our guys had gone back to England! Not us. We just kept flying towards the target; our radioman, Trivison, didn't get the message.
A few other B-24's were scattered up in the clouds and we drew together for safety. It was nice to have the company again. Our little flock reached the I. P. (Initial point), where you change course and head directly in towards the target. It's a dicey time, but that's when things just opened up. Like the eye of a hurricane, it was a bright clear day over Tutow. We made our bomb run without a hitch. Even the fighters left us alone and we turned and headed for home. Usually, when you come home from a mission, there's one interrogating officer waiting for you. That afternoon, we had center ring; all of them were on top of us!
In the days that followed, we racked up missions. For April 22nd, the target was Hamm. This was going to be our seventh mission and the crew was starting to feel like old timers. We thought we'd seen it all. Hamm was real heavy, well defended, and a long way off. It was late afternoon, when we took off.
We had to fly right down the Ruhr Valley. It was another one of those flights to try and get fighters up; you know, knock down as many as you could before the invasion. I have been told that Gen. Doolittle actually went on the air and told the Jerries we were coming. I don't know if it's true, but you can bet they were up there to meet us. Just like a wagon train, we went way up high and followed that Ruhr River right on down. Then we turned around and went through plenty of fighters and flak to get back.
It was well after dark, when we crossed the English Channel. So, to save time, a lot of us gunners started jerking the machine guns to clean and tear them down. You were supposed to do that after you landed. As we approached Wendling, the pilots turned on the landing lights and circled the field.
Well, right there in our landing patterns, Jerry fighters welcomed us. They had flown right above us and followed us all the way back to England! We didn't even know they were there . . . worse yet, our anti- aircraft guns couldn't fire at them, for fear of hitting us.
Boy, things got wild there, just when we thought our excitement was over for the day. The pilots were trying to land without lights and when the ship rolled to a stop, the guys were hitting the ground and running for cover . . . fast!
The first time we saw a P-51 escort, we almost shot them down. We were on a mission to an airfield at Leipheim, on the 24th of April. It was on the far side of Munich; another long haul for us. Most of our fighters couldn't go the distance, so we thought we were looking at ME 109's.
Instead of coming up beside us and slowly moving in, they came in nose first, from six o'clock. It was a new aircraft and we were new, so we didn't recognize them. In the blink of an eye, we would have opened up with our machine guns. Lark Morgan, our tail gunner, called up to the pilot and said:" Hey, there's four ships back here . . . I can't identify them ". Kamy said:" Well, watch them and if they come in too close, shoot the hell out of them!"
Lark looked back: " They're getting too damn close!" So Kamy said; "Go get 'em" . . . just then, they banked their wings up to identify themselves. I think they were new at their jobs too, otherwise they wouldn't have gotten that close to a bomber's tail.
Our crew had flown nine missions in nineteen days. We were given some time off and some of the crew went into town. I stayed around working on some project. It was just my luck, that the Eighth Air Force decided to fly two missions in one day and they needed my help!
Intelligence had gotten word from the French Underground, that trains were backing up in some town. The bridge had been blown out and the rail yard was full. Somebody had to go over and bomb it in a hurry! Naturally, they sent orderlies out to comb through the base. Anybody they could find was assigned to an airplane. There wasn't even an enlisted man's briefing for that one; just get you gear and go! I flew with some people I had never even seen before. Curious, though, even after all these years, I still remember the jackets they had on. There was a blue eagle painted on the back . . . it was really unique.
Our last mission: April 29, 1944
Before a mission, your name would be posted on a bulletin board, the evening before. It would be up at a certain time, and breakfast at a certain time. They sent somebody to make sure you were awake, at three or four in the morning. Then, you would get up and go to breakfast. Always eggs! You never get anything except eggs, bacon, and the works before a mission. Then over you go, to the ready room and check out you flight gear. Next, you went into a briefing room with everybody to learn about your target. Of course, when you walk into the room, there is a curtain pulled across the screen, so you don't have any idea where that little red line is going to lead to! You keep hoping, it'll be a milk run just across the Channel; you know, just drop one on France and come on back home. Oh Boy! It really gets quiet when they start pulling that curtain open and you see that line stretching. The further it stretched, the more moans you could hear! When it went to Berlin, you could hear groans all over the place, because you knew it was going to be a long hard one!
When you go into your barracks, like at Wendling, we weren't the first. We were replacement crews. You'd go in there and know somebody else had slept in the cots before you. Look up on the wall, and there are maps of Germany and England with little red lines going over to Brunswick, Wilhelmshaven. . . all the different targets. Each crew had their own little map up, marked with the different missions they had flown. On one map, you follow those for maybe four missions. The next one had only two red lines. You might have a certain plane several times, but it wasn't like . . . "this is your plane". In our case, we flew several different aircraft, but they were of uniform quality.
Anyway, in our Quonset hut, was a crew that we always flew with: Lt. Rogers' crew. We were there with him all through the State's and we went overseas together. Our crews were assigned to the same squadron and we both went down on April 29, 1944.
When we first came into the hut, there was a little cocker spaniel. She wouldn't have anything to do with us. Her name was Duchess and she'd just ignore everybody. When we'd go out on a mission, that cocker spaniel would be sitting, waiting for a certain plane to come back.
Every plane that landed, she'd rise up and start wagging her tail. Then, when they'd go by, she'd sit down again. We knew that she belonged to a crew that didn't come back. She was going to have a litter of pups and we looked out for her. After she had them, she became friendly with us. We would bring her pork chops or whatever we were having at the mess hall.
Early in the morning, on April 29th, we went down to the mess hall and she followed us in. The cook tried to get her out, but she wouldn't leave. We went over to the room where we got our equipment; she followed us in there too. Now, there were a couple of guys that were superstitious, so they said: " Get that damn dog out of here!" Our tail gunner, Lark Morgan, was very agitated: " I'll kill that damn dog!"
We left to go on the mission, and Duchess tried to jump into the jeep. They literally had to kick the dog out. We went to our airplane, and in a few minutes, there was that dog! She ran all the way across the field and was there when we took off. And then, we didn't return.
Some Red Cross people came in and told us that Duchess belonged to a pilot and told us his name. He had a girlfriend in London and she wanted one of the pups. They were going to send one of them to her and one of them back to his mother in the states. In fact, just a day or two before we were shot down, they had found homes for all of them. That dog seemed to have sensed something, because she wouldn't have anything to do with us, only a few days before hand! I think about that dog from time to time; in fact I had a dog and even named it Duchess.
On the 29th, before we were hit, we were watching others get hit. The fighters had been real heavy. They were coming in just knocking down airplanes. One got blown in two! You could see it opening up and the people sliding out. We were almost at the target, when we got hit.
The fighters came in and there were several waves of them. They would hit and then, there would be another wave of fighters. They weren't on top of us all at once; there was a space in between. 062 (Offenstein's plane) was up on my left, and I was looking out at it! The fighters passed through. We were flying in so close, that you could look at the pilot's eyeballs, as they flew by! She was flying just a little behind us and just a little above us. The Jerries had just broken off and started to pull away.
I was looking ahead and I'd seen just a wall of flak up there. It was black; pitch black. I thought that we were in the outskirts of Berlin. When you are up in the air, you can see a long distance. We may have been thirty-five or forty miles from it, but we were right there.
I began to hear flak underneath us. I was looking right out the waist window, when a hunk of flak went off right below Offenstein's airplane. It lifted 062 up, maybe ten to fifteen feet, and blew it forward! Pointed in the nose up position above us, it rolled over, came down and hit our wing. I had just enough time to call the pilot: "Lieutenant, I think it's going to hit us!" We continued forward and they went down. That was the last I had seen of it. I didn't see how anyone could get out because they were going nose down. Maybe, they had gotten control of it. We went down in a spin, but it was a controlled spin.
It could have taken us twenty-five minutes to hit the ground. It seemed, we were pretty much under control. We got hit near the I. P. and we turned around. Flying at three hundred miles per hour in a steep dive, you'd get back to Hanover in a Hurry!
We went down over a forest. Their forests had been cut and harvested and replanted. When our plane hit the trees, we bounced along the tops of them, because they were all the same height (that cushioned our fall). We sailed out into a wheat field and rolled along there until we hit a ditch. The airplane tore off its nose gear and then the whole front end of the airplane. When the co-pilot went to turn off all the switches and the power, he reached up and everything just disappeared! It tore completely off and it went under the airplane. The pilots, Kaminitsa and Graham, were strapped in their seats with nothing in front of them, except dirt and rocks flying into their eyes.
The way Krushas describes what he saw hanging from his parachute, that plane heading for a field sounds like ours. When we came down, there was a farmhouse and a barn about four hundred yards from us. Another plane had fallen into it and was burning. That could have been 096. The barn was really close to the house and I don't know if it burned the house too.
There was a dirt road and I can remember the farmers coming down this road and heading out across the field towards us. The German fighters were circling around us while we were on the ground. They circled until the civilians got there. Shortly after that, the Army got there. They took us to a flak battery. We were taken into an anti-aircraft battery, and kept there. A lot of women operated aircraft guns, and they paraded them to see what they had shot down. We were there for a couple of hours, until canvas covered trucks came and took us to the dungeons in Hanover. Would you believe they brought Lt. Rogers' crew into the same dungeon?
Life in Stalag 17b
Several weeks later we became Kriegies at Stalag 17B, Krems, Austria. The experience is peculiar, because, you don't think about home or your family. . . all you think about is food. You never think (or I didn't) about walking up to a table with the food already prepared; all of your dreams are about preparing it. I remember one of my dreams. There was this huge swimming pool out there and it was filled with boiling grease. I had thick steaks and there I was, throwing those steaks out into the pool.
We had a chow king for the barracks, who was elected. They were always voting one guy out and a new guy in (depending on how thick he sliced the bread). His main job was to divide up the food (what little we got), so you can see why they didn't last too long. Occasionally we got Red Cross parcels, but they weren't divided up.
Most of us dropped down close to a hundred pounds. I weighed about 110 lbs. when I got out. The only way you could get through the POW experience was to keep thinking: "The war is going to be over next week; or next month; or next year (for some of the British)" You lived from month to month. If you knew ahead of time, that it would be such a drawn out thing, with such lousy treatment, and so little food for a year. I don't think you could have lived through it. In fact, after the invasion, we were sure the whole thing would be over any day.
At 17B, there were guards to make sure that the Germans weren't going to surprise us. Some guy would walk in and pull a message out of his boot, stand up on chair, and tell us the latest news. It really amazed me that so far away from home, we were getting the news. Someone who had been there for a while said that there was a radio hidden in some barracks. They listened to the radio, and a guy would come around every two or three days to read the news to us. I thought that it must be some big elaborate thing to pick up England. Some time later, I heard that it was just a crystal set. A crystal set! By God, I knew how to make a crystal set since I was a kid. With that you could pick up a station a hundred miles away. England broadcast from a higher frequency and at night, the reception was better.
When a POW would come into camp, if he was wounded and they hadn't taken off his electric suit at the hospital, you could get some of that fine wire from it to make the coil. That was the easy part. The difficult part was to make a crystal. I made it out of sulfur and zinc. I went to the water pipes in our washroom with a homemade knife, and scraped a lot of the zinc off the outside of the pipe.
I needed some sulfur, so I went over to the hospital area again. They had sulfur ointment for burns. I took the ointment, heated and cooked it; then, skimmed the sulfur off the top of the grease. I melted the zinc and dropped in the sulfur, which immediately crystallized. Now, I had the crystal that I needed for the power, for the radio. The real hard thing is to make an earphone and of course, you need a permanent magnet. I already had some fine wire from the heated suit. I collected old razor blades to make the magnet, then broke out one section of the double-edged razor blades to make a u-shape. I staked them together and wrapped a wire around them real good. With a cloth in each hand, I held the wire, and shoved it into a light socket. It blew every fuse in the barracks, but it permanently magnetized the razor blades (We had DC running through the barracks!).
With a permanent magnet, I re-wrapped the blades with a finer wire, like you have on earphones. Then by taking the lid of an old tin can, and placing it on a cement floor, you grind it until it's paper-thin. This gets mounted on the magnet, and set into a condensed milk can with the wires going to the radio. I made a speaker that way. It was pretty primitive, but it worked.
The Germans were always coming through searching for antennas, so you needed to keep it hidden. The barracks were made out of soft pine wood. I took my knife and made a cut way down in the boards, tucked in the wire as I was making the cut. It went down to one end of the barracks and back again. I went over it with white wash, so you couldn't see where I embedded the antenna into the wall. The wire ended up in the leg of my bed and I drove a nail hole in there to make a receptacle. Now you couldn't see the wire anywhere. All I had to do was to plug into that nail hole and I was plugged into my antenna. I had to do the same thing for a ground. I put it in one of the posts that held up the barracks. Man, at night, I could hear England loud and clear. In the daytime, it was hard to pick up.
Later on I traded for headphones from the Russians, who cleaned the compound. I had made another radio that was the size of a plastic toothbrush holder. That made it easier to hide. I miniaturized it by using the same number of coils with smaller wire, on a smaller piece of wood, and the crystal was in the end.
The Germans sometimes, would come in the middle of the night, get everyone out of the barracks and search for radios and knives. You always had to be alert to hide things.
The first people that were in the camp had elected a security group. You had your chief security man. It was pretty hard for the Germans to get a day off, or a weekend off. The security people would go to the guards and say: "Want to have a weekend off to go into town to see your girl?". They'd say: "Sure". " Well, we can fix it up for you. We'll get you a three-day pass. Then, the next time that they are going to have a raid on the barracks, why don't you tell us! They aren't going to find anything anyway. "
The guard would contact our security man to tell him that there was going to be a raid at one o' clock in barracks number so and so. Now, we had the information ahead of time. We would go out to bury our knives, radios or anything else that we had. The Kriegies would be laying in their beds just like little angels when the goons would come in. They would look under blankets, tear things up, look in the attic, check under floors, and search everywhere. When they didn't find anything, they would leave! The security man would tell us to go to one of the barracks and dig for about three or four feet. Then he would tell the guard:" If you go over to barracks number 32 and look in underneath, at the northeast corner, you will see a tunnel there. " The guard would go over and sure enough, he'd find that tunnel. Then he could go and report it to his superiors. That's how he would get his three-day pass. We were well informed and it was very seldom that the goons came to raid our barracks and we didn't know about it.
Major Igel is the one that I remember. He was the one that would come into our compound for roll call and all of that. From what I understand, he had a hotel in Vienna before the War, so his English was pretty good. He seemed to be awfully strict. I'd seen him hit, beat, kick and shove some soldiers with a rifle butt. He was trying to get them to do some work and they wouldn't. It was the only time I saw him lose his temper.
I've got to tell this story about the snowballs. In winter, it was white everywhere. There was about a foot and a half of snow. We had three guards who spoke English, and they came in the day before a big wheel was due to have an inspection of the camp. They pleaded with us to be good. The next day, when the Commandant arrived, they called us out for a role call and the snow was all over the ground. It really surprised me that everything went well and everybody lined up.
The General came and he really looked like a Hollywood German; mean looking with a guard who had a machine gun across hi arm. They came in and reviewed us, then the guards came down and counted us like they usually do. I was in the third row, at the back. The General came down along our row, and he looked to me like he was going to eat us alive. Right behind him was the guard with the machine gun. I looked out of the corner of my eye, and there was a POW reaching down to pick up a big snowball. The snow was good damp enough to make it good packing and the guy was only a few yards away. My heart just stopped when the general walked right in front of me and turned to face the other way.
I was breathless, because I knew what was going to happen! Don't you know, the guy threw the snowball and it hit the General in the back of the head. His hat slid forward, and it went down over his eyes. He almost went forward in the snow, whirling around, and his face was blood red. Oh, was he mad! Then, the guard spun around with that machine gun, cocked it and threw a shell. He had it pointed right at us. I felt sure that General was looking directly into my eyeballs, and I'm sure that the other guys felt the same way too! I wasn't even breathing when the red in his face went away and came back to its natural color. He slightly smiled and said;" Krazy Amerikanishe!!!!" turned and walked forward. That was scary, I tell you!
We had Russian prisoners all around and in the Russian compound; but they didn't try to escape. In fact, most of our escape plans were to dig a trench over to that compound, because it was easier to get out from there.
There was a Major Grey, who was brought into the camp. I was not personally involved in his escape, but I was aware of it. He came into the camp and then, the German's decided that they wanted him for some offense. Anyway, the Germans came in and they put a guide wire across, and marched us all out into the back compound. I had heard that he had blown up a train or shot a guard. The goons searched the barracks. They searched, and searched and searched. As we went through, single file, they called off our names and serial numbers. The Luftwaffe that was in charge, tried for three days, and every day, they would march us out. Next, the Army came in looking for him. They looked for two or three days, and couldn't find him. Finally the Gestapo came in. They said: "if he's in there, we'll find him. " The Gestapo looked, but no dice. Man, this went on for about seven days; and everyday, we'd march out back.
We would send all day out back of the compound, while they were tearing up the place. One time, he was hidden up a chimney, and another time, they had dug a tunnel underneath for him. If the German's found the place where he had hidden, it was after they had moved him. They never did find him. Now after the Gestapo looks and they say he is not in there, then, by golly, he's not in there. In the beginning, after the Air Force couldn't find Major Grey, they told the Army: " If you brought in a baby elephant, and gave it to those guys, within thirty minutes, we wouldn't be able to find it". The surprising thing about the whole story is that while the Gestapo was looking for that one man, there were really four guys hiding; there were three Russians.
Before they came to 17B, the original cadre was in a camp in Nuremberg. There were three Americans that went over to the Russian side and three Russians who came over to our camp. The Ruskies would stand in line for role call each day and the Americans escaped from the Russian compound. They were caught by the Germans, which meant there were three too many people in camp. So, the Russians had to hide for every role call, which was often three to four times a day. For over a year, those guys were with us and the Germans never found them! So, when they were looking for Major Grey, there were actually these other prisoners hiding as well. I knew two of the Russians.
Sergei was one of them that I knew by sight. During the daytime, they'd open up the different compounds on the other side of camp and we were free to wander about. He'd come over from his compound on the other side of the camp and show up at our barracks. We'd talk from time to tome.
Barracks 29 had two entrances. Lark Morgan and I were in the A side. Jack Krecji, Heater and Young were around back in 29B. Just a few doors down, on the same side, was barracks #32. That was where Major Grey was. During inspections, he stayed in a tunnel dug underneath.
One night, they decided to move him, for whatever reason, and they didn't tell us much. Curiously though, the next day, German ferrets found that tunnel. It was a close call.
Now here's something: I was out by the side of the barracks, near the wire, with Sergei. We were talking, when Schultzie, a guard, came by. All of a sudden, Sergei starts yelling insults at him. And he kept on yelling. I thought: "What's going on here? If I were in the guy's place, I'd keep quiet as I could. "
I never trusted him again. That incident made me leery; suppose he was undercover for the German's and just wanted to impress me and the other guys. I felt like I knew one too many Russians.
On the road
The camp broke up in the spring, and we had to hit the road. We were probably into the march, eight to ten days. We started out by carrying coats and things, but they got so heavy that you had to discard them. Most of us had dysentery. At 17B, we had about six or eight doctors, who had been taken prisoner down in South Africa. They told us to eat charcoal. The Russian army had been in front of us and we would find burned down houses all around us. There were fires on the side of the road. Each day, we ate the charcoal and slept in the cold rain.
One day, we came to a hill and looked down into this valley. It was the most beautiful valley I had ever seen, with a big, tall white building and nothing else around. It was five or six stories high, with a stream that ran by it. As we got closer, we could tell that it was a mill. After walking about a half mile, our guards stopped us. They had gotten permission to let us spend the night. It was nice, warm and more comfortable than spending the night outside. We all packed in there and POW's were laying on top of one another. I had to go to the bathroom, and I asked someone where it was.
They said it was in the center of the building, so I crawled over the bodies. They were kicking me in the face, stepping on my arm, and complaining. Slowly, I made my way to the privy; Oh Boy! I was about to die when I got there. There was only one rest room and about thirty guys waiting. I knew I couldn't wait that long, so I went upstairs, and found along line there too! Man, I was dying to go! Finally, one of the Kriegies in the line said, "Well, why don't you go over there and use the window? " Now this building was snow white, it had just been painted. So I went over and there were six windows on one side of the building. By golly, there were six guys sitting at every damn window. Oh boy! I got in line again and went. As I started back downstairs, I didn't even get off the floor. The pain hit me again. I turned around and just went back to the line for the window. I made it just in time, again. After that I didn't even try to go back. The next morning, when I got up and marched out of there, I didn't look back! Whoever owned that building probably would like to have killed us. One whole side of the place was solid black.
One time, we were camped out in a field, I'm not sure what town we were in. The guards would take a group of us, maybe ten at a time, over to a well to get water at a farmhouse. Usually, another group was waiting right nearby, while the first group was getting water. When we went over to the barn, Lark Morgan, our tail gunner, had seen a hen go clucking by and into the barn. The door was right by us, so Lark opened it up and went in. Next, I heard squawk, squawk, squawk!!! Morgan stuck his head out and whispered: " Hand me a jacket". Then he went up and got out water from the well. Probably more than one person had done this, because the farmers complained to the guards. We had gotten word that the feldwebel was on his way over. We had gotten a big fire going and cooked the chicken as quickly as we could. Man, that was the best meal that I ever had, but we didn't get much chicken, because ten of us shared it.
Another time, we found some grain, I think it was barley. We took the barley, boiled it and crushed it to make pancakes. We didn't have any syrup or butter, but we still felt like kings.